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10News Investigates: Tennessee's law for challenging votes at polls

8:28 PM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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On the heels of the November election, an East Tennessee Republican group considered blocking future votes from some of its members. It would have been punishment for supporting the wrong candidate, and state law permits it.

Few people know, when you vote in any election in Tennessee anyone can challenge your vote. That voter challenge law is rarely enforced.  As political tension has increased over the past few years, it is coming up more in local elections.

Last week, the Anderson County Republican party threatened two of its members, both who hold local offices, with a voter challenge in future primary elections. Some political experts believe that state law, especially it it's actually used in more counties, could further strain national politics.

For Angi Agle, casting a ballot on election day is a symbol of United States freedom.

"It is our right and our duty as American's to participate fully," said Agle.

Agle's strong sense of duty has guided her to participate in politics more than some. Last month, she won another term in a non-partisan office as an Oak Ridge School Board member. She's also life-long Republican, well-known among local conservatives.

"In 1993, I was elected to Anderson County Republican Party Chairman and served through the 1994 elections, which were a ton of fun," said Agle.

But, Agle said the November 2012 general election was not fun. She crossed party lines in the county mayor race, something she's allowed to do given Tennessee's open party system.

"I elected to help my friend, who happens to be a Democrat. I didn't manage his campaign or anything like that, but I did work for him," said Agle.

Agle's primary voting record shows she's voted in the Republican primary, including in 2012, for the past 20 years.

"As a result the local Republican party, where almost half of the executive committee are people directly associated with our county mayor, decided that they needed to take some action for me having helped a Democrat," Agle explained.

That action came in the form of a letter from party chair Alex Moseley. The letter says, "It is not the position of the party that we should force our members to vote for any candidate, but activities that are designed to split party vote are clearly unacceptable."

The letter also indicated that the executive committee would hold a special meeting later in December to vote on banning Agle from party activities, voting in party re-organization meetings, from running for local office as a republican, and from voting in Republican primaries through the state's voter challenge law.

Anderson County Administrator of Elections Mark Stephens explains, poll watchers, election officials or anyone else present would have to contest Agles ballot when she casts her vote.

"They would contact the officer of the precinct or the polling place and they would actually canvass three judges together to basically remedy the situation," he said.

The law does not explicitly say who can serve as "judges" in challenge cases. However, it is clear that their decision must be unanimous.

"We don't make the laws, we just follow the laws," said Stephens.

Maryville College Political Science Associate Professor Mark O'Gorman believes using the law today is a step backward in civil rights.

"The last time we saw this, we probably saw it during the post-Dread Scott, Jim Crowe kind of laws trying to deal with racial issues," explained O'Gorman.

O'Gorman said pushing people out of any party, at any level, because of different thinking actually weakens the parties.

"Two major political parties. They must both deal with broad coalitions. Mechanisms like this sound like someone is trying to shrink the coalition," O'Gorman said.

So how often is the challenge law used? 10News checked with the state to see if they track challenge votes, and they don't. They told us every county keeps track of their own numbers.

Stephens told us in Anderson County, as best he can tell, no one has challenged a vote in at least the past two decades. Knox County Election Administrator Cliff Rodgers also said he doesn't think a vote has ever been challenged in Knox County.

That's not true in other parts of the state. As recently as 2010, a voter was challenged in the Cumberland County primary. After a review, the Democrat was allowed to vote in the Republican primary. In 2012, TBI investigated several primary challenges in Rhea County; the district attorney currently has that case.

As for Angi Agle, she won't be facing a future challenge after all. Moseley eventually rescinded the challenge threat shortly after Agle emailed him that she had no confidence in party leaders, and after 10News called Moseley for an interview. He declined.

"I have not been prevented from voting. I'm speaking up now because I don't want anyone else to face this," said Agle.

Moseley notified Agle over the weekend that they voted to close this matter completely. However, Agle wants state lawmakers to clarify the law if it's going to remain on the books.

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